James Willingham remembers well the heyday of Auto Row in Long Beach. Dozens of car dealerships lined a 20-block stretch of Long Beach Boulevard. Customers flocked to the area, eager to snap up a new Buick or Ford.
It's different today. The neighborhoods surrounding the boulevard have deteriorated since the 1950s. Most of the dealers have fled. For the half dozen that remain, the high crime rate and other problems in the area have hurt business.
"It's a problem," said Willingham, who has owned a boulevard dealership since 1954. "We're flying, we're just not flying as high as we should be."
That may change soon. Discouraged by the situation, Willingham and a handful of other Long Beach auto dealers are completing plans to uproot their businesses and move to nearby Signal Hill.
On Tuesday, the Signal Hill City Council will consider authorizing the city's Redevelopment Agency to begin buying land as part of a $24-million deal to develop an auto mall adjacent to the San Diego Freeway.
After 15 months of tedious negotiations, the city and the auto dealers earlier this month reached an understanding that outlines the general terms of the deal.
A more complex development agreement should be hammered out by the end of March, but ratification of the document by the council will have to wait until an environmental review of the project is completed, probably by June, 1986.
In Long Beach, the rush of the car dealers to speed out of town has city officials understandably disappointed, but they maintain the exodus will have only a marginal effect on the city's hefty budget.
The harshest critics of the auto mall are in Signal Hill itself, where owners of businesses that would be displaced fear financial ruin.
Plans call for a 26-acre auto mall bounded by Cherry and Junipero avenues and Spring and 28th streets. Four dealers have agreed to move to the mall and four other area dealers are still considering joining. If more than four dealers take part in the project, the city will consider buying additional land.
Dealerships to Move
The dealers that plan to move are Willingham, owner of Boulevard Buick, Lincoln-Mercury, British Saab and GMC Trucks; Long Beach Honda Car; Robert Autrey, owner of a C. Bob Autrey Mazda and Long Beach BMW; and Mike Salta, who owns M. F. Salta AMC, Mitsubishi and Pontiac. Each of the dealerships except Long Beach BMW is on Long Beach Boulevard.
Officials have refused to reveal who the other four dealers are or where they do business until negotiations are complete.
Signal Hill officials predict the city will pay about $24 million to buy land for the mall, finance relocation of the existing businesses and fund improvements such as street paving and lighting. The dealers would in turn pay about $10.5 million, spread over seven years, for the land, city officials said.
If all goes according to plan, the dealers will be happily settled in Signal Hill by the middle of 1987.
That's none too soon, Signal Hill leaders say. They are eager to attract the auto dealers to help boost the city's sagging sales tax revenues, which have slumped with the decline of the oil industry.
Signal Hill's Lifeblood
For decades, oil has been the lifeblood of Signal Hill. But as reserves of crude have dwindled in recent years, municipal leaders have begun to look for ways to diversify the city's economic base by attracting new businesses.
"The city could be faced with an economic crisis in about 10 years if something isn't done," Councilman Gerard Goedhart said. "We're a growing city with more demands for service, but our economic situation is decreasing. We have the responsibility to ensure the city's financial future and that's what we're doing."
Officials say the auto mall could eventually pour about $2 million a year in sales taxes and business-license fees into city coffers. That would be quite a boon to Signal Hill. In recent years, about $3 million of the city's $8-million budget has come from sales taxes.
The majority of the businesses that would be displaced are service firms that are not subject to sales taxes, said Louis Shepard, Signal Hill city manager. The city collects about $100,000 a year in sales taxes from the two dozen businesses in the area, Shepard said.
There are obstacles, however. Chief among them is opposition to the project from the owners of land the city covets for the auto mall.
"I don't think it's the American way to allow them to come in and take someone's property," said Velma Robinett, property manager of 20 acres being eyed by city officials. "I don't think that an auto mall is the best business in the world. There's already too many of them around. And I have successful businesses on my property right now."